By Elizabeth Jewett and Andrew Nurse
This past weekend, Mount Allison University hosted Quelques Arpents de Neige for the first time. Arpents is a conference that takes a workshop-like feel. Its goal is to bring people together to discuss different trends in Canadian environmental history. And, in so doing, it provides an opportunity to think about the development and direction of Canadian environmental history on a regional, national and transnational level. Environmental history is one of those rapidly developing subfields of Canadian history that has done a great deal to challenge the ways in which we think about Canada’s past and, because of this, Arpents also raises broader questions about the character and nature of Canadian history and how we conceptualize it.
Some of the questions Arpents raises are almost stereotypically “big” questions: how do we narrate the nation? How do we periodize the storyline? What is the boundary between national and transnational history? How, and should, historians work together to advance scholarship about Canada’s past? One might even pause to ask an almost whiggish question: does historical scholarship become better with time? Said differently, does the integration of ecological and environmental perspectives make history more accurate?
It is impossible to answer these big questions in a short space, but the work presented at Arpents suggests that environmental perspectives have indeed done a great deal to challenge established conceptions of the past and to raise questions about what stories can — and should — be told. Several themes that emerge out of Arpents are important in this regard.
First, environmental history mirrors other subfields of history in that it finds a ready audience outside of professional historians. Artists, scientists, activists, NGOs, and film-makers, as well as professional scholars working in other disciplines were all part of Arpents and interested in speaking about the environment and history. In other words, environmental history creates a discursive space that allows for communication across disciplines, publics and communities. What historians make of this space — how, for instance, they think of authority within it, is an important consideration of the on-going vibrancy of historical research and writing.
Second, environmental history also mobilizes diverse approaches to research that, simultaneously, both become subjects of discussion themselves and facilitate research into the past. Some researchers made use of the important, traditional, modes of historical research but these were mixed with a strong commitment to Indigenous and alternatives voices (captured, say, through documentary film) and, as well, the use of different research techniques, such as dendrochronology, which allows for the research into the changing patterns of tree growth over time.
Third, the environmental history presented at Arpents challenges conceptions of the subject matter of history. This has always been a part of environmental history. The idea that there are non-anthropocentric narratives that can and should be told is a key element of environmental history. For instance, two different speakers at Arpents noted the “hard lives” that could be lived by trees, birds, and aquatic wildlife. This line is a metaphor and one that necessarily runs the risk of anthropocentric comparison but the point is that it need not be. Even if we struggle with how a story of nature can be told, the fact that historians, artists, activists, First Nations, and others try to tell it is important on two grounds. It displaces humanity from the narrative centre of history and thus challenges the human conceit of our own importance while it recognizes the importance of nature as a subject worthy of respect in itself.
Finally, there is an emotional resonance to environmental history. At Arpents this resonance was evident in studies of state policy and the manipulation (in some cases the subversion) of standards of environmental protection; in documentaries that explored industrial landscapes; and in the pathos of environmental degradation, evident in other work such as Harry Thurston and Thaddeus Holownia’s Icarus project (which uses photography and poetry to explore the deaths of thousands of birds as a result of a flare at the Canaport Liquefied Natural Gas plant in Saint John, New Brunswick). In this work, we sense anger, frustration, sadness, and a deep distrust of the state and big business, but other emotions are equally and evident in environmental history. These include awe, worry and respect.
A different emotion is conveyed by by Holownia’s Walden Tree XIII, a work shot with explicit attention to both a specific landscape and an environmentalist ideal. The image becomes almost a portrait. It conveys the dignity of the tree, as if it were a prominent politician or economic leader sitting for a portrait that commemorates their place in history. Here we run the risk of personification: of attributing our characteristics and feelings to nature. The idea, however, that the tree — that nature — can have about it a quiet dignity that merits respect is powerfully conveyed in this image. It tells a specific story about this tree in a personalized way. To put this a different way: the tree is not the forest.
The ambiguous feelings that haunt the industrial landscape are evident in Tony Tremblay and Ellen Rose’s Last Shift. Last Shift is a story of deindustrialization and its legacy in northern New Brunswick. Here is an environmental story that involves an intense and often problematic interaction between big business, a second growth forest, and transnational paper markets. It is a story that moves in no one singular direction. The demise of paper production in northern New Brunswick triggers further population movements that ultimately connect this part of the Maritimes to the hydrocarbon economy of northern Alberta as workers left New Brunswick for “the West.” Exactly what one should feel about the mill closing is never 100 percent clear in Last Shift. Something clearly has been lost and a legacy of pollution makes that loss all the more poignant and disturbing. How we cope with that loss and its implications for work, the environment, environmental clean up, and declining demographics is not a matter that can be easily addressed, even while the close relationship between people and nature is manifest in the film.
Is all of this emotion good for history? Should history have an emotional resonance? Arpents does not provide a simple answer to this question, but it does suggest that history is always and already emotional. To deny that emotional resonance is to deny one of the attributes that attracts diverse audiences to history. It might be natural, normal and appropriate to marvel at a natural majestry or worry about human folly or the environmental politics of inequality. The complexities of emotion also tell their own story. The fact that we cannot say that changes over time are simply good or bad but that they emotionally pull us in a broad range of different directions is, one might suppose, to capture an important component of history in general. After all, if there were no emotion to history, would so many people still be interested in it?
Elizabeth Jewett and Andrew Nurse, Mount Allison University